Saturday, September 9, 2017

One Hundred and Forty One

I am as alone as Alexander Selkirk. 

Defoe is said to have invented Friday in order to show that the civilized Englishman invariably becomes master of any savage he meets, whatever the circumstances. That may have become the moral of Defoe’s story as he wrote it, but I think he began with Selkirk’s story, and invented Friday because he couldn’t imagine such loneliness.

“L'enfer, c'est les autres”, said Sartre. Not because he was a misanthrope, but because however well we come to know other people, they remain strangers. A stranger could become our friend, but we fear s/he’ll become our enemy because our society teaches us to be competitors.

“There is no such thing as society”, said Baroness Thatcher. “There are only individuals”. Wise words from a fool. But we’re all fools.

Fools aren’t fools because they never say anything wise. They’re fools because they don’t know what they’re saying. They merely repeat what they hear.

“Never say more than you know”, said Wittgenstein. But if we didn’t say more than we know, most of us would never say anything. 

We know more than we think we do, or admit we do. Education means forgetting what children know, because it's too terrible to live with, and pretending to believe the comforting lies adults pretend to believe.

We all know life is terrible for most people most of the time, but we pretend the occasional moment of joy makes the years of pain worth living. Life may be worth living for some, but not for most of us. Perhaps not for any of us. Even the most fortunate of us must be troubled by the knowledge that their happiness is made possible by the misery of others. But even if they feel no pity for others, the fortunate must feel fear that their victims will take revenge on them.

What we used to call society before the baroness corrected us is built on sadomasochism. The fortunate take joy in hurting the unfortunate because it confirms that whatever they do, their victims can’t or won’t take revenge on them. 

Slaves don’t rebel against their masters unless and until they delude themselves into believing they'd make better masters. But so few of us are able to master ourselves that only fools imagine they could master others.

We pretend to be masters and/or slaves because we've all done terrible things. We'd rather be masters, guiltless because above the law; but most of us are content to be slaves, guiltless because we merely carry out our masters’ orders.

We invented gods who could forgive us for committing crimes too terrible for us to forgive ourselves. Now we know too much to believe, or suspend our disbelief, in gods, but not enough to forgive ourselves; so we punish ourselves.       

Friday, September 8, 2017

One Hundred and Forty

After she died, I tried to kill myself, and failed; so I took all the books off the shelves and cleaned them, for something to do. But I can do nothing now. I never put them back on the shelves. They’re still sitting on the floor in piles.

Once in a while I look for a book; but usually I can’t find what I’m looking for, so I pick up the first book I find and read it. Last month it was Wallerstein’s. After I finished it, I picked up Stuart & Marie Hall’s A Brief History of Science. Brief it is, but well written, by literate writers for literate readers, in a style as obsolete as Chaucer’s Middle English.  

Nothing is more obsolete than a book about the progress of human knowledge. Every age of reason and enlightenment has been a renaissance, a rediscovery of ancient knowledge lost. We keep losing our way, so for us progress always means going back to the beginning. And we always lose more than we regain.
 
I finished the Hall’s book last night. This morning I woke, as I often do, with a phrase echoing in my head. It was We are dancing on the edge of a volcano

Popular historians invariably use this phrase when writing about the Weimar Republic, but it’s older than Weimar. Ravel wrote it on the score of La Valse before the Great War, and he was quoting Salvandy, who used it about the July monarchy. Historians started using it about the USA a few years ago, but no longer. The parallels between Trump’s USA and Hitler’s Germany are too close. They now insist Trump is a unique phenomenon without precedent.

Peter Campbell wrote with contempt about the people who danced on the edge of the volcano between the world wars, but we've always lived on the edge of the volcano. What else should we do but dance while we can?

There may be trouble ahead
But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance

Dancing in the dark
‘Til the tune ends
We're dancing in the dark
And it soon ends
We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here
Time hurries by, we’re here
Then we’re gone

Friday, September 1, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty Nine

Why am I still alive?

Leonard said he knows why he’s still alive.

When Cindy killed herself, Leonard said he was the only one who knew why.

Her daughter was grown and married, so Cindy’s work was done. She had no reason to stay alive.

Leonard said he wants to meet his Maker, but stays alive because his daughter needs him. Jennifer cannot or will not take care of herself.  

I used to tell myself I stay alive because I love the human race, and want to do what I can to help it. But I can do nothing. The human race is destroying itself because it doesn't love itself as I do. Now I stay alive because I’m already dead in the only way that matters.    

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty Eight

Last month, when Leonard said he was selling his house and moving up north to live with Eric, he also told me not to come over anymore. He said his real estate agent would be bringing a lot of people to see his house, and he didn’t want me there when they arrived.

Perhaps he considers me an undesirable neighbor, or someone who people interested in buying his house might consider an undesirable neighbor.  

Leonard and I have little in common. We're friends, or what other people call friends, only because we’re both old and alone.

I’ve often wished Leonard would leave me alone; but he’s done me too many favors for me to end our relationship without good reason. I suspect he feels the same about me. But now he was moving away, so there was no need for either of us to keep pretending we’re friends.

That was a month ago. I haven’t seen Leonard since then. 

Neither have I seen any strangers enter or leave his house. But I hadn’t expected to. 

The real estate agent told Leonard his is a desirable property. But however much people may desire it, I doubt many of them can afford to buy it unless they’re willing to go into debt. And after the last financial crash, people are more reluctant to go into debt.

Yesterday morning I saw a man’s jacket hanging inside Leonard's screen door. Thinking he was bringing his clothes downstairs because he was moving out, I knocked on his door to say good-by.

To my surprise, he invited me in.

Leonard said the jacket wasn’t his. Eric left it behind yesterday, when he and Danny were visiting. Leonard hung the jacket inside the screen door so that when Eric returned for it, he could take it without having to come inside Leonard’s house.

Leonard said Eric and Danny are refurbishing their family’s old house, and since they were in the neighborhood they decided to visit Leonard. At first I thought they were refurbishing the old house because Eric and Leonard would be living there, but Leonard said Eric doesn’t want to live with him.

Eric lost his house, his job and his wife, so Leonard was sure he’d be happy to share expenses with him; especially as Leonard receives two pensions. But Eric doesn’t want to live with Leonard, not even with his two pensions.

To make matters worse, Eric and Danny are refurbishing the old house – adding a ramp for a wheelchair – because Leonard’s ex-wife, Danny’s mother, will be living there.

Leonard said he’s taken his house off the market and will live in it until he dies. I’d pity him if I were still capable of pity.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty Seven

I went to bed early last night. I go to bed earlier and earlier every night, and stay in bed later and later every morning. Around ten o’clock last night I was awakened by a loud explosion.

At first I thought the transformer had blown again. It blows every summer, on a day when everyone’s air conditioner is turned on high. But the last few days haven’t been that hot. 

Then I heard another explosion, and another. I was still half asleep, and for a second I thought people had finally had enough. The revolution had begun. Then I realized that was absurd.

The age of revolutions is over. People no longer believe we can change things, except for the worse. But most of us never did believe it. Namque pauci libertatum pars magna iustos dominos volunt, said Sallust. No one believes our masters are just, but we all know they could be worse, and probably will be soon.

I realized then that what sounded like explosions were fireworks. I didn't know or care what they were for, but I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read an article in the NYRB about the demonstrations against Putin.

There’s no organized opposition in Russia, no party with leaders and a program, which proves the demonstrations aren’t organized but genuine and spontaneous. That's their strength, and their weakness.

When questioned, demonstrators said they want an end to the corrupt status quo, but can’t define what they want to take its place. According to the pundits, this proves Russians don’t understand how democracy works. But Russians understand that what they’ve been told is democracy doesn’t work, just as what they were told was communism didn’t work. 

Russians are disgusted with politics itself, or what they're told is politics. Americans are equally disgusted with politics, but still allow their masters to define what politics is. This failure of imagination explains why revolutions, even when they succeed in ending the corrupt old order, fail to replace it with a new and better one.

The explosions continued, so I went online and learned that today is the one hundredth anniversary of the city's incorporation, and they're celebrating with fireworks.

There’s nothing to celebrate. The city has a well-deserved reputation for corrupt politics. It's sound and fury signifying nothing.

Again and again I resolve to pay no more attention to politics. But if not politics, then what? 

Politics is the art of living with others, one we've yet to master. We must have masters, just or unjust, if we can't or won't master ourselves.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty Six

Einstein supposedly said doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results, is the definition of insanity. He didn’t say it, but he should have, because not only is it a good definition of insanity; it’s a good definition of life. 

Silenus supposedly said it’s better to die young, but best is never to be born. He didn’t say it, but many have.

When we set out on life’s journey, we think we won’t make the same mistakes those who came before us made; but eventually we realize we’ve made exactly the same mistakes. Those of us who haven’t, made different mistakes. Living is the first mistake, and it leads to others.

I listened to Scheherazade today. It has only a few melodies, repeated over and over again, and it’s popular for that reason. We're limited beings who can hold only a few ideas in our minds at any one time. We forget them, and then we remember them. Thinking they're new, we repeat the same ideas over and over again in different words.

Shah Riah thinks his wife loves him as he loves her. When he discovers she’s been unfaithful, he has her killed. Believing all women are the same, the shah marries a different woman each night and has her killed in the morning, before she can be unfaithful. Until he marries Scheherazade.

She tells him a different story each night, and tells it so well that each morning the shah lets her live another day so that she can tell him how the story ends that night.

But it’s always the same story, repeated over and over again in different words; and it always ends the same way. The hero always triumphs, always wins a woman who loves him as he loves her; and they live happily ever after.

Shah Riah listens to this story each night, as a child listens to a favorite bedtime story, because he wants to go to sleep and dream of love.

All men are misogynists; but it’s not just women they distrust. We all set out on life’s journey thinking the world loves us as we love it. And we all discover, sooner or later, that the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

No one wants to live knowing this. Like Shah Riah, we want to kill the world we loved for betraying us; or else kill ourselves. But most people do neither. They just go back to sleep.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

One Hundred and Thirty Five

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. What does this mean? we ask, pretending not to know.

We keep telling ourselves the same old story in new and different words, so we can pretend not to know what it means.  

I know where I’m going
I know who’s going there with me
I know who I love
But the devil knows who I’ll marry.

We set out on life’s journey thinking that while we may not know everything, we know enough. But sooner or later we lose our way, as Dante did.

Beatrice sent Virgil to lead Dante back to the Western god. But now we’ve lost faith in all our gods, and don’t have enough faith left to invent new ones.

Westerners see loss of faith as a disaster. They follow charlatans who promise to lead them back to their god, as Virgil led Dante, because they assume their way is the only way. Easterners see it as a revelation that our world and its gods is an illusion, but Westerners go on fighting the same war because they'd rather die than admit the gods who bless their battles are illusions. 

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall.
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” 
“None,” said he, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours
Was my life also. I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour;
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled
Or, discontented, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift, with swiftness of the tigress. 
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery.
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, 
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .” 

A hundred years ago this month he wrote this, and still we're sleeping.